Please help us to honour Our Heroes of 2014

Jonny Wilkes and Rachel Shenton with previous Child of Courage winner Corey Stephens-Goodall.

Jonny Wilkes and Rachel Shenton with previous Child of Courage winner Corey Stephens-Goodall.

It was back in early 2006 when I sat down with the then Editor of The Sentinel and we talked about creating a community awards campaign.

We kicked around some ideas for categories, thought about how the awards ceremony would work and finally came up with a name.

Nine years on and Our Heroes is firmly established as this newspaper’s flagship annual community event.

On September 25 an array of TV, stage and sporting stars and a host of civic dignitaries will gather on the red carpet to pay tribute to a remarkable group of individuals highlighted through our news pages.

Ask celebrities such as Jonny Wilkes, Nick Hancock, Rachel Shenton, Gordon Banks OBE and Olympic gold medallist Imran Sherwani and they will tell you that the Our Heroes Awards do is an incredibly humbling and grounding experience which makes all those in attendance feel extremely proud of our patch.

Every day now until July 31 you can read inspirational and humbling human interest stories in The Sentinel as we shine a light on each award nominee.

They range from children of courage and bright young things to charity fund-raisers, volunteers and carers, good neighbours and community groups. They include school stars and heroes of the NHS as well as emergency services and Armed Forces personnel who go beyond the call of duty.

Since 2006 we have published more than 1,000 Our Heroes nominations and more than 2,000 people have attended the gala awards dinner.

Previous award recipients have included foster carers, charity fund-raisers, paramedics, policemen and women, firefighters, soldiers, aspiring performers, doctors, nurses, receptionists, teachers, school caretakers and residents’ associations.

Winners have included cancer drug campaigners, the Women Fighting for Herceptin; courageous youngsters including meningitis sufferer Ellie-Mae Mellor and Caudwell Children ambassador Tilly Griffiths; ‘tin can man’ John Leese MBE who raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for Dougie Mac; and even the Staffordshire Regiment (now 3Mercian).

The local media is often criticised for focusing on the negative in society and fixating on bad news.

Our Heroes rather disproves that notion because it gets under the skin of the daily acts of kindness, bravery and selflessness shown by so many people in North Staffordshire and South Cheshire.

It’s not a campaign which will sell us thousands of extra newspapers but the goodwill and pride generated by highlighting all these amazing individuals is priceless.

The Our Heroes Awards is exactly what a local newspaper should be doing – a genuine antidote to all the hardship and misery, all the stories about deaths, crime, accidents, deprivation and job losses.

Each tale is inherently positive and highlights an unsung hero, heroine or group who perhaps otherwise would receive no recognition for their extraordinary lives.

And therein, of course, lies the problem for my colleagues and I which is that those nominated for an Our Heroes Award don’t believe what they do – day-in, day-out – is unusual.

It’s our job to convince them otherwise and to show them how special they really are.

In order to do that, however, we need your help. If you know someone, or a group, who deserves recognition then please just take a moment to pick up the telephone or email one of the reporters tasked with looking after a particular category.

Please help us to honour those who enrich the lives of others. Tell us who Our Heroes for 2014 really are.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

If Banksy wants it here in the Potteries, statue should stay put

The Gordon Banks statue.

The Gordon Banks statue.

I was genuinely saddened this week to read about the possibility of our wonderful statue of World Cup-winning goalkeeper Gordon Banks potentially being moved from Stoke-on-Trent to Leicester.

When I say ‘our’ statue, I know full well that it actually belongs to the Gordon Banks Monument Committee. which was started and funded by Irish author and Banks fan Don Mullan.

However, I say ‘our’ statue because I honestly feel the wonderful sculpture – crafted with the help of Stoke City fans by Potteries-born artist and friend of mine Andrew Edwards – belongs here in our city.

As I understand it, the statue was originally intended to be one of three likenesses of England’s greatest goalkeeper – echoing the sculptures of Sir Stanley Matthews CBE at the Britannia Stadium. Like Stan’s statue, they were intended to sit on a plinth at the home of Stoke City but, for whatever reasons, the other statues never materialised and neither did the plinth.

Having failed to reach an agreement with Stoke City, Mr Mullan has held talks with Banksy’s other club – Leicester City – about the possibility of it moving to the Foxes’ King Power Stadium.

Local newspaper the Leicester Mercury is backing this option, along with former Leicester City players, while The Sentinel is campaigning to keep Banksy’s statue in the Potteries.

As Mr Mullan rightly points out, it does seem ludicrous that the statue of one of the world’s best-ever goalkeepers isn’t taking pride of place at a football stadium.

Well, there’s one just off the D-Road, Don, and the team there plays in red and white.

That’s where the Gordon Banks statue was intended for and that’s where it should end up, in my humble opinion.

Over the last 15 years, I have had the pleasure of getting to know Gordon Banks, who has attended many of the major awards ceremonies The Sentinel stages each year.

No matter who else is in the room, irrespective of whichever sporting VIPs are there to present the prizes – the biggest cheer of the night is always reserved for this giant of our national game.

If you sit and chat to Banksy, he is a lovely, warm and friendly bloke – always happy to reminisce, give his opinion on current teams and players, have his picture taken with awe-struck guests or sign autographs (I’ve got one in my office).

The people of the Potteries, not simply Stoke City fans, hold him in the highest regard which, I suppose, isn’t surprising when you think he has lived here for so long. How disappointing, then, that a venture which aimed to honour the brilliance of this Stoke City and England legend should result in an unseemly tug of war between the Potteries and Leicester.

For goodness’ sake, I reckon the cost of sorting this mess out is about the equivalent of your average Premier League player’s weekly wage.

The people I feel most sorry for here are sculptor Andy and Banksy himself – both of whom agree the statue ought to remain in Stoke-on-Trent.

That in itself is surely a pretty powerful argument.

Andy, the man who sculpted Sir Stan’s statue and the wonderful Staffordshire Saxon in the foyer at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, has made his feelings clear.

He points out that Stoke City fans, of which he is one, helped to craft the statue and that Banksy himself is now very much an ‘adopted-Stokie’.

Andy proposes a simple solution and one which would surely be acceptable to all parties – that of a second cast of the sculpture being made and this one being placed outside the home of Leicester City.

He’s even said he’ll work on the project for nothing.

But perhaps the last word should go to Banksy himself. He said: “When the statue was being made. I was told by the guy who was paying for it and people at Stoke City that it would be placed outside the ground. I don’t really know what’s happened since then. That is where I’d like it to be, as this is where I’m living.”

Who are we, then, to argue with the bloke who made THAT save? Now, how do I sign The Sentinel’s petition?

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

Inspiring partnership celebrates city’s rich sporting heritage

Sentinel Editor-in-Chief Mike Sassi at the Sports Awards 2012.

Sentinel Editor-in-Chief Mike Sassi at the Sports Awards 2012.

It’s another big week for our city, following the hugely popular visit of HRH Prince Charles to the Mother Town a few days ago.

On Thursday evening an array of stars from the world of sport will turn out at the Kings Hall in Stoke to pay homage to individuals who are perhaps less well-known but nonetheless equally deserving of praise.

The guest of honour will be Sally Gunnell OBE – our compere for the 38th year of the City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Personality Awards.

The gold medal-winning Olympian follows in the footsteps of sporting luminaries such as Lord Sebastian Coe, James Cracknell OBE, Dave Moorcroft OBE and Jonathan Edwards CBE who have all graced the event in recent years.

Joining Sally will be a veritable who’s who of home-grown sporting legends who each year give up their time to make the event more memorable for those in attendance.

These include World Cup-winning goalkeeper Gordon Banks OBE, Paralympic equestrian hero Lee Pearson OBE, Olympic gold medal-winning hockey player Imran Sherwani, former England wicket keeper Bob Taylor MBE, current England cricket star Danielle Wyatt and football pundit Mark Bright, to name but a few.

They’ll be rubbing shoulders on the red carpet with Potteries football royalty like John Rudge and Micky Adams.

The list goes on…

It really is a night to reflect on Stoke-on-Trent’s rich sporting history and our celebrity guests add a touch of glamour to what is a very prestigious occasion.

We’ll be handing out the Sir Stanley Matthews Potteries Footballer of the Year Awards to a Stoke City and Port Vale player and inducting two more famous faces into the Civic Sporting Hall of Fame.

But the real focus on Thursday’s event is on the achievements, endeavour and selflessness of individuals and teams who may never hit the big time or make national headlines.

That said, their contribution to sport in our patch is exceptional and well worth celebrating.

Indeed, this is why in 1975 councillor Tom Brennan came up with the idea of a civic event, championed by The Sentinel, to pay homage to the unsung heroes and heroines of local sport.

The City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Awards has come along way since those early days when a few dozen people attended a buffet and prize giving.

It’s now a black tie event for more than 300 guests with video tributes to all shortlisted nominees which you’ll be able to view on The Sentinel’s website on Friday morning.

But the ethos of the awards remains the same: To honour the local footballers, cricketers, rugby players, martial artists, cyclists, coaches, officials and competitors across a range of sports and sporting disciplines.

They make all the wet Sunday mornings, the endless training sessions, the fund-raising and administrative nightmares worthwhile.

Most of those who we will be honouring on Thursday will not be household names but, through their efforts, they touch the lives of thousands of people in the Potteries.

Their walk on to the freshly-painted stage, accompanied by music and the warm applause of a packed Kings Hall to receive their trophy from a celebrity and have their photograph taken, may only take a few minutes.

But it will hopefully create a memory that will last a lifetime and we will chronicle it for them.

I think there must, sadly, be a perception among some city councillors that journalists at The Sentinel spend all their time thinking up negative stories about them and the local authority.

This is presumably one of the reasons why communications gurus come and go with such regularity and there seems to be a constant appetite for reviewing the council’s press and PR strategies.

However, the truth is somewhat different to the perception of some elected members.

The vast majority of council-related stories carried by this newspaper are positive or neutral and that’s a fact.

What’s more, Thursday night proves that our partnership activities with the authority are a real success – genuinely aspirational and important events for the city as a whole.

Along with The Sentinel Business Awards, the City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Personality is a key event in the city’s calendar with a long and distinguished history.

Long may it continue to reward and inspire.

*Follow @SentinelStaffs on Twitter for updates on Thursday night as the winners are announced. Full coverage of the event in Friday’s Sentinel and online.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday

Please help us to find and reward Our Heroes

Actress Rachel Shenton with Child of Courage nominee Billy Heslop.

Actress Rachel Shenton with Child of Courage nominee Billy Heslop.

Yesterday The Sentinel launched this year’s search for unsung heroes from across its patch.

I am, of course, referring to the Our Heroes community awards campaign where this newspaper and its partner organisation – the Aspire Group – seek to highlight the lives and work of special individuals and organisations.

Categories range from Child of Courage and Bright Young Thing to Adult Carer Of the Year and Charity Champion/Fund-raiser Of The Year through to School Star and Hero Of The NHS.

We honour members of the emergency services and the Armed Forces as well as community groups whose efforts make such a difference to people’s lives.

The Sentinel publishes their stories then our panel of independent judges convenes to choose three individuals or groups from each category who will attend a glitzy, celebrity gala night.

That’s when the likes of Nick Hancock, Jonny Wilkes, Anthea Turner, Wendy Turner-Webster, Rachel Shenton, Gordon Banks, OBE, Mark Bright, Imran Sherwani, John Rudge, Peter Coates – among others – are only too happy to give the applause rather than to receive it.

They turn out each year on the red carpet to pay tribute to ordinary folk from across North Staffordshire and South Cheshire who have rather extraordinary stories to tell.

We’ve already had more than a dozen nominations but we’re going to need an awful lot more.
That’s where you come in.

Over the next three months The Sentinel will publish around 120 heart-warming stories which put paid to the myth that newspapers are all doom, gloom and negativity.

Remarkably, the biggest challenge when organising an awards event on this scale isn’t arranging the seating plan, shooting 30-plus videos, selecting a menu, or chasing up the VIPs.

It’s actually persuading Sentinel readers to vote for their friends, relatives and colleagues in one of the nine award categories.

You see, the problem is that round here people are rather backward in coming forward – precisely because they don’t believe that what the people they know do, day-in, day-out, is out of the ordinary.

They view their lives very much as the hand they’ve been dealt and just get on with it – whether that means caring for a relative round-the-clock, 365 days a year or coping with tragedy or illness.

Others devote their time to helping those less fortunate than themselves or making their neighbourhoods better places in which to live.

This is the eighth year of the Our Heroes awards and I can honestly say, hand on heart, it is one of the highlights of my year.

Anyone who has ever attended one of the ceremonies will tell you that they are truly inspirational occasions which showcase the triumphs of the human spirit.

They remind you just how lucky you are when you see the adversity others face and overcome and, put quite simply, make you want to be a better person when you see the selflessness and generosity of others.

Over the years The Sentinel has published more than 1,000 inspirational stories of people who have enriched the lives of those around them. People like Edward Dyster who came up with the idea of cycling 150 miles to raise money for the Donna Louise Children’s Hospice at the age of just six.

People like Dylan Kelsall, aged nine, from Longton, who has a muscle-wasting disease which means he faces surgery every six months.

People like Stephen Allerton, from Meir, who gave up his job as an engineer to care for his mother, father and brother.

People like cancer drug campaigner Dot Griffiths and Dougie Mac’s record fund-raiser John Leese, AKA the ‘Tin Can Man’, who have both sadly passed away since receiving their Our Heroes awards.

People like Ralph Johnson, from Biddulph, formerly a teacher at my old school – Holden Lane High – who spent more than 50 years helping to rescue people who got stuck in caves.

People like Colour Sergeant Gary Golbey, originally from Kidsgrove, who won the Beyond The Call Of Duty category after battling back from a brain tumour to complete the full 22 years’ service in the Army.

People like paramedic Rita Davies who tackled a knife-wielding patient who tried to attack a colleague.

People like Graham and Pat Bourne, from May Bank, who have devoted more than 100 years to enriching the lives of youngsters through the Scouting movement.

Each story is unique. Each award recipient extremely deserving. Crucially, each story worth the telling.

On September 19 this year’s unassuming yet amazing nominees will gather for another night to remember.

If you know someone worthy of recognition please don’t hesitate to contact The Sentinel and help us to make them feel special.

*To nominate someone for an Our Heroes award simply email: martin.tideswell@thesentinel.co.uk

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday

Hands-off the Lord Mayor… it’s too important a role for us to cast aside

Even when needs must and belts have to be tightened, I would suggest there are certain things that ought to be sacrosanct.
In our house it’s Heinz Baked Beans and my monthly copy of The Wisden Cricketer magazine. Everything else is up for discussion as far as I’m concerned.
This, admittedly simplistic approach to thrift, is how I believe Stoke-on-Trent City Council should approach its cost-cutting measures.
Make no bones about it, the situation is grim. Council tax will rise and 358 jobs will be made redundant as the local authority attempts to find savings of £24 million.
The public consultation is already underway on a sweeping cuts package which could see the axe fall on care homes, lead to fewer bin collections and result in reduced opening hours for the city’s libraries and museums.
Amid this financial carnage, I was heartened to read that the council’s business services scrutiny committee had refused to endorse another money-saving suggestion: Getting shot of the Lord Mayor.
Apparently, doing away with the ceremonial role – complete with car, chauffeur, hospitality, allowances and a secretary – would save around a £130,000 a year.
However, by my reckoning, dumping 83 years of heritage simply isn’t worth the cost saving.
Frankly, I’d rather see the back of another highly-paid senior manager than have Stoke-on-Trent lose its first citizen.
Better still, we could save tens of thousands of pounds by doing away with the six-week British Ceramics Biennial funded by local taxpayers who haven’t a clue what it actually is.
My friend and fellow Sentinel columnist Fred Hughes said recently: “I’m in favour of the mayoralty but there are question marks over the value it holds in times like these.”
Unusually, I have to disagree with Fred this time.
In my book, if we want to be a city worth the name then we have to draw a line somewhere when it comes to cutbacks and, for me, that line starts with the Lord Mayor.
During my 20-odd years as a hack I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing and working with many of the city’s first citizens during that period.
In my opinion you simply cannot put a price on having a figurehead travelling around the Potteries bringing gravitas to so many occasions.
I think of the numerous picture requests The Sentinel’s photographic department receives from people eager to tell us ‘We’ve got the Lord Mayor coming to open it (whatever it happens to be).
People care about this role. It means something. Having the Lord Mayor attend your do – whether it be a charity gig or a more formal occasion – is hugely significant.
Simply having the Lord Mayor there in his/her civic regalia adds a touch of class and raises the profile of thousands of events and makes people feel they, and their do, are a bit special.
In my role at The Sentinel I work closely with colleagues from the city council and help to organise major public ceremonies such as The City Of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Personality of the Year Awards.
As well as a host of sporting personalities from our neck of the woods such as Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor and Gordon Banks OBE, in recent years this event has attracted the likes of Lord Coe and Stuart Pearce OBE.
I simply can’t envisage organising such events without planning for having our first citizen on the red carpet to greet the VIPs – and the hundreds of local people for whom such nights are a treasured memory.
It was certainly no surprise to me that when the 10 contenders for Stoke-on-Trent’s Citizen of the Century Awards were chosen last year they included Doug Brown.
Doug, perhaps best known as the founder of Ladsandads, is the only person to have been Lord Mayor of our city twice.
As well as being a thoroughly nice and genuine bloke, he was also an outstanding ambassador for our city – something which was only made possible by his role as first citizen.
For me, the Lord Mayor is a position to which we should aspire and a role to be cherished.
It is one piece of the family silver which should not be tinkered with.

Our Heroes’ stories give us a true sense of perspective

Journalists are, by their very nature, cynics. It should be a prerequisite of the job.

As it is, most of us enter newsrooms as reasonably well-adjusted individuals then, over time, we transform into something akin to Victor Meldrew.

It happens for two reasons. Firstly, we learn through bitter experience not to take anything at face value, because accuracy is king and you’re only as good as your last story.

Secondly, we become cynics due to simple over-exposure to real life.

On an average day a local newspaper journalist deals with deaths, road accidents, fires, crime, job losses, complaints and public sector ineptitude – along with all the associated moaning and misery.

Over time you become inured to it all. Very little surprises you and even less inspires you.

It’s sad, but true.

Then once in a while something comes along which lifts you out of the monotony and reminds you why you do what you do.

This may smack of navel-gazing but I believe the newspaper I work for has always been very good at leaping to the defence of local people and aiding worthy causes.

Whether it be our Proud of the Potteries campaign to answer the spurious claim that our city was the worst place to live in England, helping to launch a local children’s hospice or raising a 19,000-strong petition calling for a new hospital for North Staffordshire, The Sentinel has certainly done its bit.

For years our slogan was ‘A Friend Of The Family’ then at some point, almost by stealth, it changed to become Local and Proud.

I like to think we are still both.

This emphasis on community has, in recent years, led to a heavy commitment to events such as the City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Personality of the Year Awards and Stoke’s Top Talent, and the forging of new relationships with the city council and The Regent theatre.

They’re big, positive, annual events which help to show off all that is good about our circulation area.

The bean counters – who consider us journalists to be overheads – might argue that such events don’t sell us many newspapers.

My rejoinder would be that they touch the lives of thousands of people, generate enormous goodwill and a sense of pride in our region.

Tonight is the climax of one such campaign and yours truly is lucky enough to be going along.

In early 2006 my gaffer outlined his vision for an annual ‘Oscars-style’ community awards night. You know – staging, music, videos, red carpet, the works.

Later that year Our Heroes was born and the first awards ceremony took place in September.

Four years later and The Sentinel has published more than 400 stories of human endeavour, skill, bravery and selflessness.

During the same time, our campaign sponsor – Britannia – has given away around £40,000 in prize money to individuals and groups.

Tonight Children of Courage, Adult Carers and Charity Champions will rub shoulders with celebrities, sporting greats and civic dignitaries who are giving up their time free of charge to honour ordinary people who lead extraordinary lives.

The great and the good will all be there – the Lord Mayor of Stoke-on-Trent, the Bishop of Lichfield and the Chief Constable of Staffordshire, along with the likes of Gordon Banks OBE, Anthea Turner, Nick Hancock and Jonny Wilkes.

But it’s not their night…

The real stars will shuffle in from the car park nervously adjusting hired dickie-bows, or smoothing out their new frocks and feeling rather embarrassed by all the attention.

Because the truth is Our Heroes are all self-effacing, humble people who have to be dragged (sometimes literally) into the limelight and told just how wonderful they really are.

It’s my job to organise the event, write the script and compere the show, and it is a privilege.

There is something genuinely life-affirming about being involved in an event like the Our Heroes awards night and gaining a brief glimpse into the lives of some truly remarkable people.

No matter what is going on in your own life, you can’t help but be touched and inspired by stories of the award nominees.

They give you a sense of perspective that can all too easily be lost in the chaos of your everyday existence, and they remind you of what’s really important.

OK, such events may not sell us many more papers.

However, this ageing hack is very glad that his newspaper still understands the value of championing the people it serves.

Perhaps we’re not all cynics, after all.